BOOKS: by R.J. Stove (reviewer)News Weekly
'Damaged Men: The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart', by Michael Ackland
, April 7, 2001
DAMAGED MEN: The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart
By Michael Ackland
Allen & Unwin
Rec. price: $45.00
A quarter-century after James McAuley's death at 59, two distinct schools of McAuley criticism have emerged.
First, the approach of chroniclers as otherwise disparate as Dame Leonie Kramer and Peter Coleman, whose main interest lies in McAuley the poet, though neither Kramer nor Coleman slights his agonised politico-religious concerns.
Second, Cassandra Pybus' brand of tabloid invective, which presupposes (a) complete disregard for McAuley's artistic eminence, and (b) concomitant lust for Hollywood-Babylon-type innuendo added to Vietnam-era leftie spite. (Such a predilection, of course, pays a backhanded compliment to McAuley's gifts; how delighted Pybus would be if she could pooh-pooh McAuley as talentless, but even she baulks at that.)
It is the sad distinction of Monash academic Michael Ackland - whose previous books include a study of Henry Kendall - that, while entirely capable of adopting the Kramer-Coleman outlook, he nose-dives here into Pybus territory's compost.
The main interest of Ackland's effort resides in its justifiable emphasis on McAuley's sometime collaborator: Harold Stewart (1916-95), co-begetter of Ern Malley, and fellow lyric poet, whom McAuley's breathtaking brilliance rather relegated to a bridesmaid's role. Stewart's spiritual journey took him not to Catholicism but to Buddhism. Yet, given McAuley's early attraction towards non-Christian creeds - as a youthful catechumen, 15 years pre-Vatican-II, he displayed exceptional eagerness to discover how Catholicism regarded other religions - Stewart's eventual conversion, and residence in Japan, formed a decidedly McAuleyan outcome. His latter-day bitterness about Australia differed from McAuley's in degree rather than kind.
Besides, faith in the Buddha not only gave Stewart deep peace; it enriched his literary powers. His English translations of Japanese poems (notably those of the 17th-century aphorist Matsuo Basho) are as vibrant, vigorous and tensile as most others' are flat, inchoate and childish. The best pages in Stewart's 1981 epic By the Old Walls of Kyoto - which Ackland over-cautiously calls "a moving, personalised panorama" - match almost anything by modern Australian verse's ruling quadrumvirate: McAuley himself, A. D. Hope, Judith Wright, and Gwen Harwood. But such superbly crafted fare has never been, and never will be, popular among pubescent scribblers brainwashed into ascribing cosmic splendour to Michael Dransfield et al. Let us hope that the improbable recent acclaim for tomes like A Return to [rhyming and/or scanning] Poetry can induce a reaction in Stewart's favour.
Both Stewart and McAuley grew up in modest Sydney households; both followed a similar pattern of scholarship-supported education (especially self-education) to a high level; both became bureaucrats during the 1940s, their jobs leaving them abundant leisure to consummate Malley-speak's quintessence. Perhaps their sheer temperamental affinity ensured a breach sooner or later, although Stewart's aversion to Christendom and increasingly blatant homosexual tastes probably did most to guarantee estrangement from his fellow bard. (Stewart found Melbourne more congenial for p¾derasts than Sydney, a verdict contrarian enough to deserve noting.)
The broad outlines of the poets' respective post-Malley careers remain reasonably well known: McAuley's fame as Quadrant editor, critic, professor, and NCC-DLP activist, none of these activities (on his own admission) banishing his "despair / Older than any hope I ever knew"; Stewart's departure for Kyoto, and consequent withdrawal from Australian literary warfare that he found ever more nasty, brutish and long.
On Ackland's evidence, Stewart bridged the East-West gap as well as any Westerner ever can. Far from needing to remake himself as a Japanese, he simply indulged a cast of mind pretty obviously Japanese to start with. A malign accident had prevented him from being born into the milieu he loved; so in 1966 (having already visited Japan twice) he upped stakes and belatedly rectified this error.
But observe the caveat: "on Ackland's evidence". How can we rely upon Ackland's interpretation, since his capacity for trivialising McAuley's world-view approaches Pybus' own? Dismissive
Needling his subject rather than trashing him Pybus-fashion, Ackland dismisses the polemics of McAuley the "Cold War warrior" for the "extreme, even Manichean terms" in which they call Communism "pure evil" - as if Communism was ever anything else.
Clearly, for Ackland, the need to bemoan CIA bankrolling (real or imagined) far transcends the need to understand McAuley's thought-processes, which Ackland recklessly charges with having "stopped at neither calumny nor branch-stacking". Surely Monash's library stocks The Black Book of Communism? If so, why hasn't Ackland digested that comprehensive exposŽ?
Enervating parochialism characterises Ackland's attitude, which largely ignores the European origins of McAuley's outlook.
Though Ackland's even-tempered suavity produces more tolerable results than Pybus' overworked bludgeon, it still partakes of the depressing "conservatism-as-neurosis" routine from which T. W. Adorno, Richard Hofstadter and other still drearier pseuds made huge profits.
The world still needs a serious, full-length analysis of McAuley's output which does McAuley himself the honour of recognising his ideology's implicit intelligence.
Here is the perfect opportunity to conscript some unemployed graduate too sensible to waste his energies on churning out the 536th academic billet-doux to Manning Clark.